Church concerns over dwindling numbers in India’s northeast

Church concerns over dwindling numbers in India’s northeast

Presbyterian synod in Mizoram wants more maternity leave to encourage Christians to have more children

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi
Published: December 15, 2021 10:22 AM GMT
Church concerns over dwindling numbers in India's northeast
Two women and a child walk along the banks of the Tiau River, a natural border between India and Myanmar at Zokhawthar in India’s northeastern state of Mizoram, on March 15. (Photo: AFP)

The Presbyterian Church’s synod in India’s Christian-dominated Mizoram state has demanded an increase in maternity leave for Mizo mothers employed with the state government so that they can have more babies.

The Mizoram government allows its women employees 180 days of maternity leave like in the rest of the country. “But we want extended leave for women as this will help them beget more babies. Unlike elsewhere in India, we are facing dwindling population numbers,” said Reverend Ru Lanrinsanga, explaining the resolution passed by the synod.

Mizo leaders and church bodies feel the national policy to control the population has lost its relevance in the state and in the northeast’s two other Christian strongholds of Nagaland and Meghalaya.

These states’ dwindling Christian tribal populations could lead to them being swamped by outsiders, especially non-tribal people from the rest of India.

The Lunglei Baptist Veng Church in Mizoram in 2017 announced cash awards for women with more than two children while a provincial minister awarded cash prizes to parents with the most number of children in his constituency.

Robert Romawia Royte, a junior minister for sports and youth affairs in Mizoram, distributed 250,000 rupees (US$3,330) to 17 parents in his Aizawl East-II constituency on Oct. 12. The cash prizes were meant to encourage parents to have more children as advocated by the state’s churches and civil society organizations, he told the media.

We are generally not against people from the plains who come and reside either for business or professional reasons

The federal government should review its uniform two-child norm for the entire nation and restrict it to densely populated states only, Royte suggested.

The dip in population remains a vexing problem in the northeast’s hilly region, which has more than 200 linguistic and ethnic groups across the seven states of Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur, Assam, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh.

While Meghalaya, the hub of Khasis, Garos and Jaintia tribes, practices matriarchy, Nagaland and Mizoram are known for their male-dominated societies and opposition to outsiders.

Young Mizo Association (YMA) leader RuataVanlal said that “the population decline is a serious issue. It will be unfortunate to link it to local people opposing the influx [of migrants]. We are generally not against people from the plains who come and reside either for business or professional reasons.”

The issue of dwindling numbers in the region should be understood in a sociopolitical context rather than seeing it as a parochial or religious issue.

Ethnic minority groups in the northeast constantly fear being swamped by outsiders from mainland India and even other tribal groups.

Nagaland witnessed large-scale violence in the mid-1990s due to clashes between the Naga and Kuki tribes. This ongoing rivalry also affected parts of Manipur.

In Mizoram, the native Lushais will not entertain Brus or Reangs, especially when it comes to exercising their right to cast their votes. This issue almost caused a boycott of the December 2018 state elections by the Mizos but for the last-minute intervention by the Election Commission of India.

Ethnic identities are a complex matter. Mizoram has for months accommodated and helped refugees from Myanmar’s Chin state facing persecution following the Feb. 1 military coup in the neighboring country.

A shared ethnic bond plays out as a crucial factor in this show of concern, say experts on the region’s geopolitics.

India, currently the world’s second-most populous nation after China, wants to check its population growth as a priority. According to the United Nations figures for 2019, India had an estimated population of 1.37 billion and China 1.43 billion. By 2027, it is possible that India will surpass China.

However, Guwahati-based analyst and social worker Ratnadeep Gupta points out that “according to the National Family Health Survey, India’s total fertility rate dropped below the replacement level of 2.1. It is now at 2.0 [per thousand population].”

And yet there are concerns about population explosions in states like Uttar Pradesh, which also happens to be India’s largest province.

In July, the Uttar Pradesh government helmed by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Yogi Adityanath proposed the Uttar Pradesh Population (Control, Stabilization and Welfare) Bill, 2021, which seeks to extend benefits of government-sponsored welfare schemes to only those families with no more than two children.

Increasing population is the root of major problems including inequality prevailing in the society

The officially stated goal of the proposed law is “to reduce the state’s fertility rate to 2.1 per thousand population by 2026 and 1.9 by 2030. Uttar Pradesh’s current fertility rate is 2.7 per thousand population.”

In a press note issued on July 11 (World Population Day), Chief Minister Adityanath said: “Increasing population is the root of major problems including inequality prevailing in the society. Population control is the primary condition for the establishment of an advanced society.”

The State Law Commission in Uttar Pradesh has now sought suggestions and objections from denizens of the state.

So while at the national level India tries to incentivize people to have one child — with job security and promotions, tax breaks and so on — and penalize those with two or more children by denying them jobs and welfare schemes, the situation in the northeastern states remains different.

The federal government should review its uniform two-child norm for the entire nation and restrict it to densely populated states only, minister Royte had suggested while saying they would continue promoting bigger families so that the population of Mizo Christians does not decline further.

National census data shows population growth in Mizoram, despite having over one million people, has been in decline since 1971-81 when it had peaked at 49 percent with over half a million people.

Pro-Hindu outfits including India’s ruling BJP may often give the impression that only Muslims have a tendency to go for more than two children. But when it comes to Hindus and Christians, a similar tendency may manifest, albeit with a difference.

Family is a private business, and ideally, the state should have no business regulating it. But is that practical enough in a country like India?

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